Agniveers Bear The Brunt Of PM’s Vision Of “New India”

It was a striking pose captured by the strategically-placed camera- that of the powerful Prime Minister of India at the feet of his mother. When I saw it splashed across the newspapers, I thought of the many mothers whose sons are out in the streets, or injured by police lathis and bullets. I wondered what they thought when they saw the photograph or when they heard of the Prime Minister ‘s message, a kind of lecture to the country, that “Ma is more than a word”. Did they cry for their own sons and, in some cases, daughters, whose dreams have been crushed- never to become a regular soldier because the man sitting adoringly at the feet of his mother had decided on such a policy? Did they think of their own lives, the many sacrifices they had made, the hardships they had endured, to see that their children get an education, join expensive coaching classes, so that they could live a better life? Did they think of the difficulties in this time of high prices to ensure a nourishing diet for their aspiring children so that they could train every day to get through the hard physical tests required to join the armed forces? Did they think of the debt that has piled up to pursue such a venture? These mothers aspire for security -security of employment for their children, security for their families- and the voices of those in the protests reflect this aspiration. Interview after interview of those protesting make this clear enough. But the Prime Minister believes otherwise.

Speaking to an NRI audience on his recent European tour, the Prime Minister said, ” New India now does not think about a secure future, but is ready to take risks, ready to innovate and incubate.” As the PM may have figured out in these last few days, the startu-ps he was referring to cover but a tiny percentage of “New India. ” The large majority who are on the streets today are exhausted with the risks they and their families have taken, financially and emotionally, so that they could serve their country and at the same time ensure a stable future for their families. They do not want to hear the Prime Minister laud ” risk-taking” nor posing for photographs to show motherly love.

Agnipath Protests: Protests erupted in several states against the Centre’s Agnipath scheme

How can a Prime Minister be so oblivious of reality? India is facing the highest numbers of unemployed in decades. Any advertised vacancy in a government job gets lakhs of applicants. The armed forces have been the first choice for rural youth. Around 50,000 to 60,000 personnel retire every year and a similar number are recruited. But for the last few years, all recruitment was stopped in the name of Covid. The government informed Parliament ” that 97 ( recruitment) rallies were planned in 2020-21, out of which only 47 rallies could be conducted. Out of the 47 recruitment rallies, Common Entrance Exam (CEE) for only four rallies could be conducted before the suspension of recruitments. For 2021-22, as many as 87 recruitment rallies were scheduled, out of which only four rallies were conducted so far and no CEE could be conducted.”

As a result, as of December 2021, the shortage in the army was at 1,04,053 personnel, while there were 12,431 vacancies in the Navy and 5,471 in the Air Force. Instead of meeting this gap through the usual procedures, for the government to come up with a scheme to change a secure permanent job into a four-year contract is bound to lead to unrest and frustration.

The scheme goes against the judgements of the Supreme Court in the case concerning women who were recruited as short-term commissioned officers. The scheme of short-term commissions was seen as discriminatory .Even though it was concerning women officers, the government gave a commitment to provide them permanent employment, and also committed to employing women in permanent posts in the armed forces. The Agnipath scheme puts an end to the hopes of young women to join the forces as permanent staff. Even though the Agnipath recruitment rules permit the entry of women , how will they benefit from a four-year stint? Employment opportunities after that will be even more difficult for them to find.

The main concern of the government is clearly to cut down on the financial requirements of paying full salaries and a growing pension bill. Following the trajectory of the framework of neo-liberal economic policies, successive governments in India have sought to undo the rights won by workers and employees through decades of struggle- that is to dilute retirement benefits including pension schemes. A very large section of the labour and staff forces in the organised sector, including the government services, are now on contract with no pension or gratuity benefits. In response to a question in Parliament in March this year, Minister Rameswar Teli said that the number of contract workers and employees in ” central sphere establishments such as railways, mines, ports and oil fields have more than doubled from 1.17 million to 2.43 million netween 2018-2021. ” These are not new jobs. The figures reflect the changing nature of recruitment from permanent to contract. Most of these jobs are of a perennial nature and under the law, workers and employees should get full benefits. Contractualisation has been an instrument used by employers led by the government, the biggest employer, to drastically cut down on the wage bill at the expense of workers’ rights. This is in spite of a Supreme Court judgement in 2016 which, while directing the government to ensure that the contractual workforce gets the same benefits as permanent employees, said, “Any one, who is compelled to work at a lesser wage, does not do so voluntarily. He does so, to provide food and shelter to his family, at the cost of his self-respect and dignity, at the cost of his self-worth, and at the cost of his integrity. For he knows, that his dependents would suffer immensely, if he does not accept the lesser wage. “

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Agnipath Protests: The protests have been violent in some parts of the country.

Now the government wants to extend this cruel exploitation to the armed forces. But there is a major additional factor. These young men put their lives at stake. They join the armed forces knowing that they can be posted to areas where the shadow of injury or death hangs over them. How shameful it is that they should be considered expendable. Agnipath is nothing but the contractualisation of one section of the armed forces- Generals and officers remain untouched- it is the Jawans, sons of India’s kisans, who will be thrown out after four years. A big deal is being made out of the so- called benefit of around 10.5 lakhs rupees they will get after their four-year stint, when actually half of this amount will be paid from the salary of the recruit himself. In damage control mode, the government announced that it will reserve 10 per cent jobs in certain defence-related public sector and other government undertakings for Agniveers. Given the dismal record of government recruitment- with accumulated total vacancies of half a million in all government sectors- and also as mentioned earlier, the contractualisation of employment, such a promise has little credibility. Besides, with the present maha-sale of India’s public sector assets, and the privatization of an increasing number of government services, the number of jobs available is going to decline further. BJP National General Secretary Kailash Vijayvargiya said it all: ” If I have to hire someone for the security for the BJP office here, I will give a preference to an Agniveer. ” Quite an apt description of the actual fate that beckons the young man who dreamt of serving his country as a full-fledged recognized soldier- a security guard at the office of the party that destroyed his future. Certainly the statement strengthens the apprehension of the building of private militias emerging as the only alternative for the unemployed Agniveer.

Basically, the government is saying that it does not have the funds to ensure the security of either employment or pension benefits to our jawans. But it is not as if there are no avenues to raise resources. The government is so committed to protecting the huge profit margins of its friendly corporates that it continues to extend the most extraordinary generosity in a slew of tax concessions to them. In a country of such obscene inequalities, when India has the record of being the third-largest billionaire-producing nation in the world, when mainly under the benevolent rule of the present regime, Indian billionaires added 700 billion dollars to their cumulative wealth, there are certainly avenues to raise resources to fund priority sectors. It is easier to exploit the vulnerability and desperation of the youth for employment by imposing such unfair terms and conditions on them than on taxing the super-rich.

Apart from the injustice to the Agniveers, an army based on contract soldiers, however brave and committed they maybe, will gravely affect continuity, sustained skill development of the fighting forces and the morale of the force. All this will be detrimental for national security. Experts and retired armed force personnel have voiced these concerns and criticisms repeatedly, but the government has not heeded these voices of experience and sanity. Many Opposition parties, as also allies of this government, have opposed this scheme. State governments such those of Tamil Nadu, Kerala and Rajasthan, and several Members of Parliament have officially written to the central government to rollback this scheme. It is in India’s interest that this should happen.

The proud slogan of “Jai Jawan, Jai Kisan” has been transformed by the Modi government into “Hai Re Kisan, Ro Raha Jawan” (the poor Kisan, the crying Jawan)- what a betrayal.

(Brinda Karat is a Politburo member of the CPI(M) and a former Member of the Rajya Sabha)

Disclaimer: These are the personal opinions of the author.

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